10.19.2015

Square aspect ratio portraits are infinitely better than any other aspect ratio. Prove me wrong.

Amy. In the current studio. 


Early experiments with LED lights proved to me that my assumption that LEDs would become a dominant photographic light source was correct.

Cuties. Lit with LED panels. 

Around 2010 I became very interested in LED technology as it related to photography. The consensus at the time was that LEDs were too weak, too color inaccurate and too expensive to ever be a workable light source for photography. I thought I knew differently because I had read about cinematographers already pressing LED lights of various makes into service to illuminate feature films. 

The first, serious LED lights I got were re-branded Chinese units sold by Fotodiox on Amazon.com. They made a $225 light that was constructed of 500 (quasi) daylight balanced, 3mm LED bulbs and they also made a lighting unit that used 1,0000 of the same LEDs. While many technocrats scoffed at what they described as the limited "spectral response" of the lights I knew that the custom white balance capabilities of the modern cameras would be able to compensate for any shortcomings as long as all the light sources were consistently consistent. 

I bought three of the 500 bulb versions and two of the 1,000 bulb units and I proceeded to use them on jobs for me and for clients. While the output was a bit low for action portraits the lights quickly proved themselves as the perfect source for still life photography of all kinds, and food photography, especially. I probably shot over 100 assignments with the first set of LEDs and I sold them to a photographer who has probably used them for hundreds more assignments. 

These lights were the impetus for the book I wrote on LED light for photographers called, LED Lighting For Photographers, which was published in 2012 by Amherst Media. It is still the best selling guide to acquiring and using LED lights for photographers, in the world. 

The basic information and techniques stands the test of time, while the products available have advanced rapidly. I still think the book is worth reading at least once. I suggest you buy it and read it from cover to cover but, if you are a cheap bastard, you can always ask your library to order you a copy....

Sometimes all you need is a one stop scrim. Not a camera with infinite dynamic range or limitless ISO.


I worked on a project for an ad agency a number of years ago. At the time the state of the art digital camera was the Kodak DCS 760. It was a fine camera for its time and had many wonderful attributes, including a raw file that was amazingly pliable. But even though it had one of the highest dynamic ranges of any camera on the market, at the time, it wasn't even in the ballpark compared to the camera sensors we enjoy today.

In order to get really good (technically) images in full Texas sun we had to use the lighting techniques we learned over the years, fashioned in the era when we used very unforgiving and limited D-range color transparency film.

This image of a professional softball pitcher was done at one p.m. on a hot Summer afternoon. I positioned her to put the foliage in the background because I knew that most sensors rendered green leaves about a stop darker than metered indications would suggest. This positioned her facing into the direct sun which was merciless on her face.

I brought along (as I usually do) a one stop, 4x4 foot silk scrim (diffusion panel) which I placed on a weighted light stand and "flew" over her head. The edge of the frame for the silk is just out of the frame, right over the top of my subject's head. It's just enough diffusion to flatten out the harsh lighting but not enough to materially change the authenticity of the prevailing light. It was a simple and elegant solution when most would call for some form of fill flash.

The simplicity of execution is what always draws me to this particular image. It is a reminder to me always to build from the simplest solution to the most difficult to employ solution instead of the other way around. When you find something that works then STOP fussing and start shooting.

You make your own dynamic range if you understand how to light. Or how to modify light.




Stories from the field: Packing the Olympus cameras and lenses but ending up with the Panasonic fz 1000 in my hands for the morning. Why? How did it go?

A shot from the Blanton Museum. It has nothing to do with the content of the post 
but I'm not able to use the images from the job we shot, yet. This is a placeholder.
It was shot with the camera we are discussing; the Panasonic fz 1000. 

I was booked on an assignment last Friday morning. It was at the headquarters of a radiology practice that has over 100 doctors, and lots of locations around Austin and central Texas. They are a wonderful client and we have provided photographic services and video to them for nearly 20 years. 

The assignment was in conjunction with a video project they were also doing. They straightened up the offices, asked the employees to dress well, and let everyone know that a photographer and a videographer would be in the building, and while the videographer would mostly be interviewing three or four people and taking "B-roll" shot, the photographer would be ambling all over the building making shots of happy employees, working or just smiling into the camera.  I would be moving quickly and trying to capture a wide cross section of employees so there would be very little time for involved lighting. We would literally be asking for individual permission to photograph, quickly posing and interacting with each subject and then snapped anywhere from three to five quick shots of them. 

I didn't want or need a full frame camera for this adventure, after all, the biggest use of the images would be the top half of a magazine page sized print ad, and most of the images would end up being used on the web. Since we'd be carrying everything from cube to cube and from office to office it just made sense to travel as light as possible.  With this in mind I packed up the two Olympus EM5.2 cameras and a nice assortment of lenses; intending to lean heavily on the 12-35mm f2.8 Panasonic lens  with the longer Sigma 60mm f2.8 thrown in for good measure. When I arrived at my destination in north Austin I grabbed the bag of cameras, a battery-powered LED panel and a small light stand.

Once I was in the building the client and I lined out our plan for the morning. I started by shooting some portraits in a long hallway. I tried several different focal lengths on the EM5.2 but for some reason I just wasn't feeling the love. Too short, too long, too something. And the cameras seemed to be fighting me when it came to color balance. The blend of fluorescent ceiling fixtures and encroaching, exterior daylight seemed to conspire to make every face a thick, tangy yellow. There are some days when certain cameras (cameras that in other venues have given me good service) just get bitchy with me and we don't click together. This was one of those days. I kept telling myself that I was shooting raw and I could correct these faults in post production but that line of thought started making me dread the idea of post production.

Early on we had a natural break in the shoot as we waited for someone to arrive. They were a bit late. I took advantage of the time to run out to the car and grab the new Panasonic fz 1000 out of the backpack it's currently living in and quickly set it up for a kind of run and gun mode. Auto WB, Auto ISO with the top ISO set to 1600. Aperture priority mode. Raw. I hate to say it because I really like my Olympus cameras, but, the Panasonic just started nailing the color balance and exposure from the minute I turned on the camera. I turned off the Olympus cameras and stuck em in their bag.

A lot of the day was spent wandering around with the VP of marketing. We'd go into a phone support or scheduling area and make quick portrait after quick portrait. No real set up. Not much more than me smiling, introducing myself and asking the person in front of me if was okay for me to take their photograph. A couple people declined but nearly 60 others thought the whole process would be just dandy.

While I had heard and read many times that the Panasonic battery was a power lightweight that would give only about 300-350 shots I ended up the morning with about 650 shots and a bar left on the battery indicator. While that's not impressive when compared to DSLR battery performance what it means to me is that two batteries with a third in reserve will take me through a long and involved day of shooting.

The camera performed well in terms of focus acquisition. Again, it's better than the Olympus cameras at finding and locking on to focus quickly. The DFD focusing feature seems to live up to the advertising. The lens range came in handy when I went outside to photograph people conferencing over coffee on the company's expansive deck. I stood way back (fewer fake smiles that way) and took advantage of the long focal length compression. Even at the longer focal lengths the I.S. did its job and I didn't see much of the degradation that the more anal camera reviews had cued me to expect.

The client and I covered a lot of ground before lunch and we were happy with the coverage. But would I be equally happy with the final results?

I got home, had lunch with Studio Dog, and after the walk we took, which she insisted was for my health, I got down to the questionable pleasures of post processing in the non-deconstructed version of Lightroom CC.

The first thing I noticed was that no matter whether I'd shot with just the fluorescent lighting or if I had added in some front fill from the LED panel, the camera did a fantastic job of nailing white balance and, by extension, skin tones. The second thing I noticed was the lack of blown highlights and featureless shadow areas. But the thing that caused me to stop in my tracks and start pixel peeping was the lack of noise at ISO 1600. At 100% you can see a monochromatic pattern of noise in lower mid-tones and shadows but since there are no patches of mottled color the effect is more than just acceptable. It's film-like. On Saturday one of my friends who works professionally as a video producer came over to borrow a couple of lenses. He's extremely noise averse and already has the new Sony A7S2 in his hands. He stared at the Panasonic image on the screen and then clicked to the exif information just to be sure I wasn't messing around with the facts. He was amazed. I was amazed.

And the wonderful thing about the noise profiles at 800 and 1600 is that the fine details of the images are still sharply rendered and defined. This little camera had smacked that job right out of the ball park!!

Which led me into a philosophical discussion of sorts with my video counterpart. Had technology reached a point where, other than niceties like XLR connectors and S-Log3 and handling, consumer cameras were flattening the barriers to entry by putting high performance into cameras that cost a fraction of what it had cost to do certain types of work only a few years ago? Is the A7S2 within a gnat's eyelash of the performance of something like a Canon C300 or A Red camera? On so many parameters the Panasonic fz 1000, a $750 camera, was outperforming almost all the previous generations of all digital still cameras up to about the introduction of the new generation of Sony sensors in the Nikon, Pentax, Olympus and other cameras (around 2012).

Was it only ingrained, professional user prejudice that was keeping people from pressing the newer, cheaper cameras into service in projects? And the same in video?

For the most part I would say yes. The one place where the differentiation is easy to see is in the one parameter of focus ramping and depth of field. It is basic physics. A full frame camera with a fast lens will allow the artistic choice of quickly dropping backgrounds (and foregrounds) out of focus. With a longer, faster lens the backgrounds can be blown entirely out of focus. It's a nice effect and one I like to use in my personal portraits but it's hardly mandatory on all jobs, especially in documentary jobs and events. But also jobs or projects where overall context is a concern.

Are we mostly holding on to the older, bigger, more expensive tech out of reflex and habit?

I am deep in thought today about my relationship to all the gear I've been shooting with. The Nikons prove their value to me in portrait shooting situations. Part of my prevailing style is to shoot with wider apertures on longer lenses and to play with the out of focus tonalities of backgrounds. But not all of my work falls into this camp. I've spent years and years shooting all kinds of events, both social and business. I'll be doing so again on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this week.

On Thurs. I'll be shooting portraits in my usual style and have already selected the Nikon D750, along with the 85mm and 105mm lenses for that part of the job. But the rest of the time I'll be standing back, documenting client and customer interaction, making images of business meetings, attending dinners and catching candid images at the Formula One race --- images of the clients and customers, not necessarily of the cars.... We'll also be shooting a concert in a downtown venue. One evening we'll be doing a walking tour of restaurants on Rainey Street. These are almost all situations which seem perfect for an all in one, high performance solution that's highly portable. A week ago I had made up my mind to use the Olympus cameras for these various functions but now I'm not at all sure and am leaning toward the fz 1000.

How serious am I about using the new camera? Serious enough to head out to Precision Camera to buy a second one. Why? No professional should show up for a job without a rational backup camera. And the best back up camera is one that is identical to the first. Same batteries, same flash, same menus and the same handling. It's this a dicey decision? Naw. If the camera can make help me make beautiful portraits, by available light, in small office cubicles I should be able to do just about anything else with it too.

The past exerts a tyrannical hold on us. It keeps us in a certain stasis that may not be beneficial. Belinda and I remind ourselves when we are out on morning walks that our tendency, when charging for work, is to hew to what we've always done. But that doesn't take inflation and increased skill sets into consideration properly. We always remind ourselves to change with the times. Twenty years ago it was heretical for corporate photographers to accept credit cards, now it is mainstream. Small flashes replace big flashes. Internet replaces print. And smaller, more capable cameras can replace a dozen or more pounds of last generation gear when the final deliverable product is taken into consideration.

At a certain point, if the work supports the decision, it makes good sense to continually downsize the gear that you'll have to carry and conserve for eight or ten hour days at a time. And if you can buy a camera that does all this for what you would have paid for one prime lens for your heavyweight system, then how does it not make sense?

This particular blog post, I think, is aimed at working professionals. If you aren't doing photos for money you can use and carry whatever you want whenever you want to. We, on the other hand, have felt I think culturally constrained to use what has always amounted to "herd approved" gear for the bulk of our work, even when it doesn't serve a rational purpose. The upheaval of the past few years may change all that; especially if the quality of the images in their final use doesn't take a hit.

And it's not just that the fz 1000 is some magical tool, I could feel just as comfortable with the Sony RX10.2, and for most uses even the Sony RX100.4 or the Panasonic LX100. They are quick and functional. In conjunction with flash and ISO 200 they match what we've always gotten from cameras--- all the way back to the film age.

Need narrow depth of field for everything you shoot? Then you need a large sensor camera. For everything else? Now it's your call.